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A daily report on important news nationwide from Ted Gest of Criminal Justice Journalists, plus commentary and research highlights.

 Amazon Builds Strong Relations With Federal Investigators

Amazon has increasingly tipped off the main Justice Department and FBI to investigate the company’s own employees and the sellers using its platform, Politico reports. Amazon employs at least 21 former federal prosecutors and 49 former FBI employees to help police its platform. In the process, Amazon has built a closer relationship than many large companies have with federal law enforcement, a deep cooperation with one branch of the federal government that could help the company’s reputation as Amazon faces intensifying scrutiny from Congress. The federal government has indicted 20 people for crimes related to Amazon in the past year and a half, a number that exceeds indictments related to other large companies like Walmart and FedEx. Legislation that would force Amazon to take more measures to police crime on its platform is moving slowly through Congress. In the meantime, Amazon is strengthening its ties to federal law enforcement — including by hiring Matthew Alcoke, a senior FBI official who was in charge of counterterrorism for the bureau’s D.C. field office during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Amazon differentiates itself from other large corporations by touting legal actions it has taken against its employees and users amid accusations from lawmakers and regulators that it has not done enough to police its platform and has allowed employees access to data from third-party sellers. Many law enforcement actions show Amazon attempting to address the billions of counterfeit goods, fraudulent listings and scams on its ever-growing e-commerce platform amid criticism from regulators. Amazon’s established internal unit filled with former federal prosecutors and investigators roots out counterfeits and hands off leads to the government. When a man in Rhode Island pleaded guilty to wire fraud charges for returning products that were of lesser quality to Amazon for refunds, the company issued a news release expressing gratitude to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The court sentenced Michael Chaves to 30 months in prison for defrauding Amazon of more than $50,000. 

 DOJ Spending $1.6B on Anticrime Grants, Mostly for Victims

The U.S. Department of Justice will award $1.6 billion in grants to support a programs designed to reduce violent crime and strengthen communities, says Attorney General Merrick Garland. The grants to communities and organizations throughout the nation, are administered by the Office of Justice Programs (OJP). Garland said the "latest round of funding will deliver critical public safety resources, helping public safety professionals, victim service providers, local agencies and nonprofit organizations confront these serious challenges." Some funding is allocated to reduce recidivism, help people coming out of prisons and jails make the transition back into their communities and support responses to crises like drug overdoses and episodes involving mental illness.

The grants include more than $1.2 billion to support victim assistance and compensation programs, $187 million under the state formula Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants Program, more than $175 million in funding for victim services and public safety in American Indian and Alaska Native communities, over $21 million in grants to address hate crimes and $17.5 million in Project Safe Neighborhoods grants. The COPS office also funded the hiring of over 1,000 officers in 183 police departments. The grants help support DOJ's Comprehensive Strategy for Reducing Violent Crime, announced in May and President Biden's Comprehensive Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gun Crime and Ensure Public Safety, released in June. Up to $5 billion additional in antiviolence funding proposed by Biden in the pending Build Back Better law is imperiled by the opposition of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WVA).

 Jan. 6 Capitol Riot Charge Ruled Constitutional

Three federal judges have agreed that the obstruction charge faced by those accused of participation in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot is constitutional, a victory for the Justice Department and a blow to the defendants fighting those accusations, says the Washington Post. The latest ruling came Monday from U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, who is overseeing the prosecutions of more than a dozen people associated with the Oath Keepers, a self-styled militia group. Mehta joins judges Dabney Friedrich and Timothy Kelly, both of whom have upheld the obstruction charges in other cases. The same challenge has been raised by defendants in various Capitol riot prosecutions, from single-person indictments to sprawling conspiracy cases. One judge who has questioned the use of the obstruction charge has yet to rule. Without that felony charge, prosecutors would be left with only minor charges against many they view as playing a major role in the riot. The Justice Department has avoided charges of sedition, a rarely used law, and not all those accused of acting as key instigators were seen assaulting police officers.

Mehta had expressed concern that it was unclear what conduct counted as felony "obstruction of an official proceeding" as opposed to misdemeanor disruption of a congressional hearing — a difference between a potential sentence of six months and 20 years behind bars. Ultimately Mehta ruled that the government had it right. "Their alleged actions were no mere political protest," he wrote. "They stand accused of combining, among themselves and with others, to force their way into the Capitol building, past security barricades and law enforcement, to 'Stop, delay, and hinder the Certification of the Electoral College vote.'" Defendants had argued that it was unclear whether the certification of President Biden's victory counted as an "official proceeding." Charging participants in the Jan. 6 riot with obstruction, they warned, could turn even peaceful protesters into potential felons. Mehta said the "plain text" of the obstruction law covered the group's actions, and that "even if there were a line of ambiguity ... their alleged acts went well beyond it." Because the law requires the obstruction to be undertaken "corruptly," he added, it does not imperil constitutionally protected free speech.

 Will Gov. Abbott Pardon George Floyd Posthumously?

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who grants pardons to a few ordinary citizens each Christmas season, typically for minor offenses committed long ago, has not said whether he will posthumously pardon George Floyd for a 2004 drug arrest in Houston by a former officer whose police work is no longer trusted by prosecutors, the Associated Press reports. Texas’ parole board — stacked with Abbott appointees — has unanimously recommended a pardon for Floyd. The two-term Republican governor, who is up for reelection in 2022, has given no indication of whether he will grant what would be only the second posthumous pardon in Texas history. Floyd, who was Black, spent much of his life in Houston before moving to Minnesota, where his death under the knee of a white police officer led to a national reckoning on race and policing. Pardons restore the rights of the convicted and forgive them in the eyes of the law. Floyd’s family and supporters said a posthumous pardon for him in Texas would show a commitment to accountability. 

In 2004, Floyd was arrested in Houston for selling $10 worth of crack in a police sting. He pleaded guilty and served 10 months in prison. Abbott attended Floyd’s memorial service last year in Houston, where he met with the family and floated the idea of a “George Floyd Act” that would take aim at police brutality. Abbott never publicly supported such a measure months later, when Republican lawmakers instead made police funding a priority. State Sen. Royce West, a Democrat who sponsored the “George Floyd Act,” said he understands the politics if Abbott was waiting until after the GOP primary elections in March. He said the governor should act on the recommendation. “As he’s always said, he is a law and order governor,” West said. “And this would be following the law.”

 Lightfoot Seeks More Federal Anticrime Help

With rising crime threatening her political future, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot doubled down on her public safety strategy in a long speech on Monday, reports WGN-TV. “Keeping you safe is my priority,” Lightfoot said. “Not one of, but the first and primary priority.” With 11 days left in 2021, Chicago has already had 783 murders, exceeding last year’s 772. Shooting incidents are up as well. “This is not an academic exercise for me,” Lightfoot said. “I feel the urgency every day. It is heart wrenching to hear the cries of the survivors who have had a loved one felled by gun violence.”

To stem the flow of illegal guns, Lightfoot is asking the U.S. Attorney General to send more firearms agents to Chicago. She also wants moratorium on electronic monitoring for people accused of certain violent crimes. “The Cook County electronic monitoring system is fundamentally broken in a way that is making our city unsafe,” Lightfoot said. She wants to raise the police rate of solving murders from its current 48 percent. “We need to hit 60 percent or higher in 2022,” Lightfoot said. “The CPD must hold itself accountable for consistent improvement.” The mayor touched on investments to combat poverty and crime, including $1.2 billion that the city City Council signed off on this fall. Lightfoot is also pushing her controversial ordinance that seeks to seize assets from gangs.

 Trump Sues NY AG James in Effort to Stop Probe

Former President Trump sued New York state Attorney General Letitia James, accusing her of having a political vendetta and abusing her office to launch investigations into him, his company and his family, reports the Wall Street Journal. The lawsuit in federal court in New York accuses James, a Democrat, of abandoning the impartiality of her office and seeks to stop her from any involvement in civil or criminal probes into the Trump Organization and related Trump businesses. James, who was elected in 2018, campaigned on a promise that she would investigate Trump and his businesses for alleged corruption. She made the claims despite having no insight into the Trump Organization or Trump’s real-estate businesses, the lawsuit says.

“Her mission is guided solely by political animus and a desire to harass, intimidate, and retaliate against a private citizen who she views as a political opponent,” says the lawsuit, which also lists the Trump Organization as a plaintiff. The lawsuit seeks to bar her involvement in any civil or criminal investigations against Trump and his company. James said the Trump Organization had continually sought to delay her investigation. “To be clear, neither Mr. Trump nor the Trump Organization get to dictate if and where they will answer for their actions,” she said. “Our investigation will continue undeterred because no one is above the law, not even someone with the name Trump.” James has said the investigation began in 2019 after former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen testified before Congress that Trump inflated and deflated his assets to secure tax and loan benefits. Lawyers working on the James’ investigation have said that the office is examining financial dealings around Trump Organization properties including Seven Springs, an estate in Westchester, and 40 Wall St., an office building in lower Manhattan. Monday’s lawsuit said that James’ office issued subpoenas to the Eric Trump Foundation, a charity run by Trump’s son.

 Crime a Top Concern for Latinos

Latinos say crime and gun violence is their number two concern — behind COVID-19 and before immigration, social justice and voting rights, Axios reports, based on findings from its Axios-Ipsos Latino Poll. The Democratic Party enjoyed huge advantages over the Republican Party when Latino respondents were asked which party represents or cares about them.

When it came to the economy and crime, Latino respondents agreed the Democratic Party and the Republican Party alike weren’t doing well. Nineteen percent said Republicans are doing a good job on crime and public safety; Nineteen percent said Democrats are good; twenty percent said they're both good; and the rest said neither, or they didn't know. Mexican Americans were more likely to be worried about COVID-19 than Central Americans, while crime ranked as the top concern for Cuban Americans.

 CA Man Gets 3 Years for Threatening Journalist

As President Trump began contesting the presidential election results in November 2020, CNN’s chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter, received a text from a man describing Stelter’s mother’s home, “implying he was there.” The “Reliable Sources” host also got a voice mail telling him to “stop digging” and a text with a photo of his father’s grave. Stelter detailed the threats after testifying at the sentencing hearing for Robert Lemke, a California man who federal investigators say threatened about 50 people over their truthful “statements expressing that then-President Trump had lost the 2020 presidential election.” On Monday, Lemke, 36, from Bay Point, Ca., was sentenced to three years in prison. He pleaded guilty in October to threatening an unspecified journalist’s New York-based family, the Washington Post reports. In a Dec. 7 letter to the judge, Lemke repeated false claims of “a large amount of fraud” in the 2020 election. Last week, Lemke wrote that he was “wholeheartedly regretful and remorseful for my actions.” Stelter said it was “clear from the evidence that Lemke was triggered over and over again by accurate news reports about Trump losing.”

The Justice Department said Lemke sent threatening messages to journalists, politicians and others between November 2020 and January 2021. As Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, investigators say, Lemke sent texts to a journalist’s family member claiming the reporter’s words were “putting you and your family at risk.” The text message said: “We are nearby, armed and ready... Thousands of us are active/retired law enforcement, military, etc. That’s how we do it.” Lemke is one of several people charged with threatening public figures after the 2020 presidential election. A supporter of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence, pleaded guilty in August to threatening Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-GA) on social media in January. A California man was arrested in January after federal investigators say he made pipe bombs in a plot to attack Democrats to keep Trump in power.

 COVID-Caused Justice Delays Will Continue for Years

When the coronavirus struck the U.S. in early 2020, the courthouse in Newport, Vt., shut down. So did courthouses nationwide. Unlike most, the one in Newport never has fully reopened. With jury trials suspended, cases are being dismissed by the dozen. Defendants live with charges they can’t shake. Nearly two years after the justice system was paralyzed by a pandemic, the repercussions continue to radiate through communities nationwide, reports the Washington Post. District attorneys face some of the longest case backlogs in memory. Defendants languish in jails that have become breeding grounds for the coronavirus. Others are set free — and, some prosecutors say, may be contributing to a spike in violent crime that is compounding the pileup. Legal officials say justice delayed by COVID-19 will continue for several years to come. That’s assuming the courts don’t have to shut down again for omicron or another new variant.

“This is a three-year project to get the number of pending cases back to what it was. And I’m an optimist,” said Dan Satterberg, prosecuting attorney in Seattle's King County. “It’s a historic challenge that we’re facing right now.” The backlogged system has had deadly consequences. In Wisconsin, Darrell Brooks was set to stand trial for allegedly firing a gun at his nephew. There was no courtroom available, and he was released on $500 bail. While out, the 39-year-old allegedly tried to use his car to run over the mother of his child and was arrested once more. An overburdened junior prosecutor juggling a jury trial and two dozen other felony cases set his new bail at $1,000 — an amount the district attorney would later call “a mistake” — and Brooks was released again. Days later, Brooks plowed his car into the Christmas parade in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha, hitting 60 people — and killing six. This time, his bail was set at $5 million. While critics have focused on the low bail amounts, Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisolm said the case was better understood as the tragic consequence of when courts can’t keep up. “This is a system issue right now, and it’s only going to get worse,” said Chisholm. “These backlogs aren’t going to magically disappear.”

 MI Shooting Forcing Schools to Redefine Responses to Troubling Behavior

School systems nationwide rely on high-level expertise from the U.S. Secret Service and others as they work to stay vigilant for signs of potential student violence, including staff training, surveilling social media and urging others to tip them off. When it comes to responding to a possible threat, however, it's the local educators who make the call, the Associated Press reports. In the Nov. 30 shooting at an Oxford, Mi., high school, the 15-year-old student charged with killing four peers was allowed to remain in school despite troubling behavior including a drawing of a handgun and a person with bullet wounds. Security experts and school administrators say there is detailed guidance to help schools recognize concerning behavior and when to intervene. Exactly how to respond, including whether to remove students from school property or involve law enforcement, is for school officials to decide in each case. Widely accepted best practices for threat assessment have been adapted from Secret Service guidance developed in the years since the 1999 Columbine school massacre. The agency's National Threat Assessment Center recommends that multi-disciplinary teams of school administrators, security and mental health professionals assess whether a student would be helped by counseling, should be reported to police, sent back to class or something in between. 

The Michigan attack came only hours after the defendant, Ethan Crumbley, returned to class after the school summoned him and his parents to discuss worrying behavior, including the drawing with the gun and the words: "The thoughts won't stop. Help me." Ethan told a counselor it was part of a video game he was designing. After the shooting, authorities learned his father had bought the gun his son used four days before. A prosecutor, taking the unusual step of charging the parents with involuntary manslaughter, said James and Jennifer Crumbley knew their son had access to the gun but didn't ask him about it after being shown the drawing, and resisted taking him home from school after the meeting. There are legal considerations for schools, especially if a student's behavior is not found to pose an imminent risk, said psychologist Melissa Reeves. If parents don't agree with the school and the situation doesn't seem to merit intervention from a social services agency, "our hands our tied because we are legally obligated to educate," she said. "We can't deny access to education."

 Teen Drug Use Shows Record Decline

Drug and alcohol use among U.S. teens saw a record decline in 2021, according to a nationwide survey, reports USA Today. Researchers recorded the largest single-year drop in the use of substances such as alcohol, marijuana and vaped nicotine among teens since the annual survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse began in 1975. "We have never seen such dramatic decreases in drug use among teens in just a one-year period," said director Nora Volkow. While researchers say the reasons behind the decline in substance use are unclear, it may be "one unexpected potential consequence of the pandemic," said study director Richard Miech. Exploring reasons behind the drop in substance use may be helpful for future prevention efforts, he added.

A lot of kids were at home learning remotely," Miech said. "So they weren't exposed to peer pressure at school. Schools are often a source for many kids to get their drugs, so they couldn't have that either. And then there were fewer parties, fewer opportunities to hang out with peers unsupervised by parents. All those things together really led to a drop in availability of drugs and opportunities." The survey, called Monitoring the Future, tracks substance use among eighth, 10th and 12th graders in public and private schools. The survey found that from 2020 to 2021, marijuana use declined from 11 percent to 7 percent among eighth-graders, from 28 percent to 17 percent among 10th graders, and from 35 percent to 31 percent among 12th graders. The percentage of teens who had ever used any illicit drug other than marijuana dropped by more than 25 percent. There were also significant declines in the use of drugs including cocaine, hallucinogens, tranquilizers and prescription opioids.

 Black People, Asians Disagree on Police Reform

This spring, Black leaders and civil rights activists delivered a message to Asian Americans: We stand with you. Asian American activists and political leaders responded in kind, publicly acknowledging racism faced by Black people. The two groups were reacting to violence aimed at their communities, including the police killing of George Floyd and a spree of anti-Asian attacks. The two groups, which historically have been divided by racial tensions and socioeconomic inequality, promised to cooperate to reduce violence and discrimination against people of color. Nine months later, the results of that pledge are hard to find, reports the New York Times. In interviews, nearly two dozen activists, historians and community leaders said that for the most part, no major efforts have been made to build bridges between the Black and Asian communities, and talks of solidarity have petered out. In the spring, there was a "lot of support" for Black and Asian people to achieve change together, said JaMae Rooks, 29, a co-director of Atlanta's Black Lives Matter chapter. "But when things died down, support, in essence, died down."

Black and Asian communities often view each other with suspicion. The tensions boiled down to one main disagreement: policing. While Black Lives Matter activists have called for reducing police budgets and decreasing cities' reliance on law enforcement, Asian leaders say that police are crucial to preventing attacks. The contrasting attitudes underline how drastically the relationship with law enforcement differ depending on race. Black Americans have been disproportionately killed by the police, while Asian Americans are among the least likely to be harmed in police encounters. Hate crimes against Asian people rose 73 percent in 2020. The police killed 192 Black people in the U.S. this year, compared with 249 last year, according the Mapping Police Violence research and advocacy project. The divisions have been striking in California, where reports of hate crimes against Asians jumped 107 percent this year from 2020, according to Rob Bonta, the state's attorney general. More than 200 Black people have been killed by police officers in California since 2013, according to Mapping Police Violence data, including 16 this year.

 Black Police Chiefs Struggle With Reform

A new crop of reformist Black chiefs have had some success changing police departments from within. Others have found it difficult to advocate for both racial equality and the law enforcement community, the Intercept reports. As of June 2020, 21 of the largest 50 police departments in the U.S. were helmed by Black chiefs. A 2016 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found the overall national figure was just 4 percent. In Portsmouth, Va., two Black chiefs have resigned in 15 years over what they allege was racially motivated interference from the police union. Reform-oriented Black chiefs have resigned or been forced out after backlashes in Dallas, Denver, and most recently in Lafayette, La., Black officers said they not only have to deal with community outrage after incidents of police racism become public, but also get extra grief for being Black while working for a department viewed as hostile to Black people.

“Early in my career, I didn’t speak up about anything that didn’t directly affect me,” said Andre Dyer, a Little Rock Police Department veteran. “You don’t want to be the angry Black man. It isn’t good for you professionally. But as I got older and more experienced and saw more and more, I just couldn’t keep quiet anymore.” Policies put in place by Black reformist police chiefs are being met with backlash from white officers in their respective departments even though scholars claim the policies are sound. A 2020 study by an economist at Hamilton College in New York found that Black leadership could have a profound effect: Departments with Black chiefs had 30 percent fewer shootings by police officers than those led by white chiefs. 

 Anti-Violence Groups Rise in Indianapolis

Shantone Hopkins, feeling the sharp pain from the bullet wound that severed an artery in her left leg, brimmed with anger at the former partner who she said shot her in a domestic dispute. As she waited for treatment, Hopkins recalled the desire for revenge against her girlfriend of six years. That is when she was approached by Iwandra Garner from Eskenazi Health, a public hospital network that treats patients from Indianapolis and surrounding Marion County. Indianapolis and other cities where leaders are struggling to stem a two-year surge in homicides, are subsidizing small programs like Garner's in an effort to prevent more violence, reports the New York Times. Such groups focus on reducing all violence, though homicides have become the priority. The impact of those programs still is not clear, but the size of Indianapolis's investment — $45 million over the next three years — speaks to the urgency of the moment.

Indianapolis is one of at least 12 cities that have experienced a record number of homicides this year. The city's efforts to decrease the grim toll — gunfire has wounded at least 700 people this year — have included pouring millions of dollars over the past few years into about 30 community groups working to diminish violent crime. The city government plans to use federal COVID relief dollars to boost the allocation to $15 million annually, up from $3 million. Indianapolis is committing $150 million to public safety from the $419 million that it received under the federal American Rescue Plan. Hopkins said that the Prescription for Hope program changed her life by introducing her to other victims who were able to remove themselves from dangerous situations after talking about it. She saw what happened when the cycle continued. "All you see is people dying, all you see is violence, all you see is crazy stuff," Hopkins said of her everyday life. Rather than her thinking about revenge, the program helps her to seek redress through the courts. Before the hospital started the program, about 35 percent of the gunshot victims returned within two years with another violent injury, but that number has dropped to five percent. The National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform helped create the blueprint for wider grass-roots involvement, including training 50 "interrupters" who can intervene and counsel anyone involved in a recent incident.

 Ransomware Attacks Continue Despite Warning to Russia

In the months since President Biden warned Russia's Vladimir Putin that he needed to crack down on ransomware gangs there hasn't been a massive attack like the one last year that resulted in gasoline shortages. Still, there has been a barrage of lower-profile episodes that have upended businesses, governments, schools and hospitalsthe Associated Press reports. Lewis & Clark Community College in Illinois canceled classes for days after a ransomware attack last month knocked critical computer systems offline. “That first day,” said president Ken Trzaska, “I think all of us were probably up 20-plus hours, just moving through the process, trying to get our arms around what happened.”

The college’s ordeal reflects the challenges the Biden administration faces in stamping out the threat and its uneven progress since ransomware became an urgent national security problem last spring. U.S. officials have recaptured some ransom payments, cracked down on abuses of cryptocurrency, and made some arrests. Spy agencies have launched attacks against ransomware groups and the U.S. has pushed governments at all levels, as well as private industries, to boost protections. Six months after Biden’s admonitions to Putin, it’s hard to tell whether hackers have eased up. Smaller-scale attacks continue, with ransomware criminals continuing to operate from Russia with seeming impunity. Administration officials have given conflicting assessments about whether Russia’s behavior has changed since last summer. Further complicating matters, ransomware is no longer at the top of the U.S.-Russia agenda, with Washington focused on dissuading Putin from invading Ukraine.

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